Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Star Wars Awakens

The trailer has hit. The new movie is less than two months away. Star Wars is back. The universe that has intrigued our own world for nearly forty is looking to have a new beginning. What does it all mean?

I've had an up-and-down relationship with the Star Wars universe over the years. It always seems that the height of my interest piques when the rest of the world is tired of it. Born in 1982, I apparently "saw" Return of the Jedi at a drive-in, but despite a great memory of things as a baby, I don't remember it. Instead, my conscious memories of Star Wars begin in 1987. At a flea market held as part of a local church bazaar, my father and I found a box of Star Wars figures. They were purchased for me, and my parents promised to show me the films (on BETA!) over the next few weeks. One particular figure intrigued me. When we got home I held it up and proclaimed that it "looked just like Billy Dee Williams!" My dad and aunt both confirmed to me that it was indeed Billy Dee. I'm still not sure where I knew him from to even make the comparison.

When I did see the movies, I loved them. What also helped my fandom is that the merchandise was either dirt cheap on clearance or easy to be found second hand. You see, in the hottest days of my own interest in the brand, Star Wars was dead to the rest of the world. A forgotten milestone in cinema. There was little-to-no new merchandise being produced as the movies were finished at that point. In elementary school most of my peers had no idea what Star Wars was. A few thought that I was referring to "Spaceballs." Others thought it was "Space Wars."  Aside from a few kids who were lucky enough to be exposed to it as I was, the adventures of Luke, Leia, and Han were lost on my generation.

In the mid-1990s, merchandise slowly revved up again. Kenner began remaking the action figures, and Lucasfilm even created an "everything-but-a-movie" story called Shadows of the Empire that generated some buzz, especially with the Nintendo 64 video game. That, coupled with the release of the "Special Edition" versions of the original movies, brought Star Wars back into vogue.

Then came the prequels.

The following isn't going to be your average prequel complaint session. My only real personal anger towards them is that they didn't come sooner when I could have fully enjoyed the toys and all of the other tie-ins. Sure I went to see them and enjoyed them, but I felt cheated. I was at an in-between age. I had other interests and I simply wasn't as immersed as I would have been had they arrived even five years earlier.

Then came the unnecessary hate.

In a move that I rarely make, I let an overrun opinion sway me. Even though I remembered enjoying the movies in the theaters and when they hit home video, the constant bashing of them in media made me think that I actually didn't like them. Yes, I always remember thinking that long, convoluted ways were taken in some instances in order to link the old and new stories, but I was otherwise impressed. They looked great, had excitement, and covered the origins of so much that I grew up loving. Did they look the same as the originals? Not always, but we must also remember that the original stories were largely confined to just a handful of planets and locales. Would that have been different had the technology been available in that 1977-1983 span? Maybe. But the confinement of the originals just furthers the idea of a war torn universe. It was dark, utilitarian, and under complete control of the Empire. The prequel years began in the exact opposite time and style.

This is also the time that a lot of what I consider "toxic fandom" began to pop-up. You don't have to enjoy all of the films, concepts, or characters to be a fan, but wishing death on people because they "ruined" your childhood by doing something that you didn't like in a fictional movie? Please. You may not have a clue as to the things I'm referring to here. If that's the case, you're better off and I shall pay it no more attention.

Even though I'd had all six films on DVD, I rarely watched them. Between things going on in my life and that media-born lack of love for the prequels still stuck in my head, it wasn't until 2011 that Star Wars truly came back into my life. When the Blu-Ray collection was released, I felt as if I was discovering all six movies again for the first time. It isn't at all odd for me to watch the whole story about twice a year, in either the "chronological" or "release" order, depending on my mood.

And now, The Force Awakens. My favorite of all of the films has always been Return of the Jedi. The nicely wrapped up ending always worked for me, but now we're going to learn that it was apparently only temporary. As of this writing, we still don't know much of anything regarding the film, despite what is said to be the final trailer released just days ago. Leaks have suggested some major story turns and the secrecy surrounding the entire project only helps fuel those fires.

I was not blown away by the trailer, although I enjoyed it. I still cannot conceptualize the film in my head, which I guess is a good thing. From what has been shown, the visual feel is a mishmash of both the original films and the prequels, which is what I'm guessing is the intent. After all, we want the themes and characters from the iconic original trilogy, but they must branch out into a larger world if their stories are to continue. I've also noticed that the lighthearted charm that was peppered throughout all of the other movies is nowhere to be found in any of the previews that we've seen. I'm sure that it will pop up somewhere, otherwise it wouldn't be Star Wars. It's going to be an interesting ride.

I won't lie and say that the marketing has completely passed me by. I gave into temptation and picked up a few of the action figures of the new characters. Hasbro decided to return to the basic "Kenner style" for the 3 3/4 inch toys, and anytime that I can relive some nostalgia is a good day for me. For a few reasons, I'm not sure when I'll actually see the movie, but I don't think that I'll be disappointed. Just like the originals and the prequels, this is a new view of the Star Wars universe. Familiar yet foreign. Comforting yet edge-of-your-seat exciting. The creators knew all that they had to do in order to please everyone who will be watching.

May the Force be with them...

Friday, September 11, 2015

Random Memories on an Unassuming 14th Anniversary...

"Where were you on 9/11?"

Whenever I hear that question asked, my mind reads it in Larry King's voice. For years after the tragic events, he would seemingly ask every guest that question at some point on his show. It wasn't unusual. For years, the terrorist attacks dominated a lot of American thoughts. Phrases like "Since 9/11" and "the post-9/11 world" were peppered throughout every news broadcast. Some call that "the terrorists winning." I call it "human nature."

To answer Larry's question, I was at home. On the couch. Sleeping. I had graduated from high school that Spring and was "taking a year off." That year lasted until the Fall of 2003 after finding a fun way to make some money, but there I was. Like many, I had first thought of that small plane that crashed into the Empire State Building in the 1940s. It had to be an accident. Pilot confusion. The thought that it was a clear day didn't enter my mind...until the second one hit on live TV before my eyes.

The night before it had been business as normal. I was up late, chatting with a female friend from high school on the "social media" of that time--AOL Instant Messenger. I probably made a little meal (my eating habits were way off-base then) and planned my day for Tuesday. A haircut and Denny's (a coupon, don't you know...) were on tap. Neither ended up happening, but not due to the tragedies. A dead car battery altered my own plans. I still remember waiting on my battery to be replaced. A television was on, switched to CNN, in the waiting room. They were airing some sort of shelling going on in the Middle East. A chubby, middle-aged woman also sitting in the room started cheering. I knew that what we were seeing had little to do with the events of the day, but I guess it provided a bit of hope. I was hopeless.

To my knowledge, I didn't know anyone who was directly affected by losing a friend or family member. I do know that it changed me. I had yet to experience much personal tragedy whatsoever, so a perceived change in the American way of life was the closest thing. For years when hearing a plane above, I would locate it with my eyes to make sure that it wasn't veering suspiciously. When approaching my home city by car, I would scan the skyline. Until my own first, life-jarring loss six years later, the 9/11 memories lingered.

Every year around this time, I go back, watch videos, and read stories. No one wants to relive it, but it's a part of our history that shouldn't be forgotten. Scarily enough, we now have young adults who don't even remember the day by their own memories.

I often think about how advanced we felt we were in 2001, yet by comparison to today it was almost the stone age. Can you imagine if 9/11 had happened in the era of Facebook and Twitter? Cell phones were catching on fast, but there were few if any camera phones. I've often wondered just what different glimpses we would have of the events of that day had today's non-stop picture snapping culture been prevalent.

Next year, the remembrances and media will likely be heavy for the 15th anniversary. This year, aside from a few cable TV specials and day-of news coverage, will probably be quiet. That's why I chose now to formulate my own remembrance. It's the Pearl Harbor or 11/22/63 of my generation. The type of history that we hope never gains another comparison.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Heyyyy Laaaady, I Miss Jerry Lewis

Jerry Lewis isn't dead. As I type this he's 89-years-old and still touring with a comedy show. To the general public who don't bother checking up on him, he may as well be. For decades, Lewis hosted the MDA Labor Day Telethon. For those of you who weren't paying attention back then, the telethon was a nearly-22-hour long event that began on Sunday night and went on through Labor Day. Stars from all walks of entertainment would make appearances in hope that you would donate to the battle against muscular dystrophy.

A few years ago, Lewis was dumped by the Muscular Dystrophy Association for undisclosed reasons. He was their chairman and had run the telethon itself for decades. The telethon lingered in pathetic shorter versions for a few years, but I ended my financial support. I have since learned that the telethon no longer exists in any form.

My memories of the telethon go way back. My parents always watched, which of course meant that I did as well. I can remember breakfasts out on Labor Day Sunday mornings where we would discuss who and what they would put on that year to get donations. In the newspaper that weekend, the pull-out Parade Magazine always featured the telethon. I also remember year-round ads for the event inside of Service Merchandise stores, as the retailer was a major supporter.

When Sunday night came around, you wanted to stay up and watch. Although live television was hardly new, it made it all feel a bit more special. This was before everyone was constantly online, so a live, nationwide broadcast made you feel connected. The often used telethon tagline of "Stay up and watch the stars come out!" only added to that feeling.

In the years before I was born and into the '80s and early '90s, the event attracted very big names. The most famous moment in telethon history, Frank Sinatra reuniting Lewis and his estranged partner Dean Martin, happened before my time, but the show still seemed like a big deal. As the event continued into the late-'90s, you could definitely notice a dip in "A-List" acts, but the fact was that many of Lewis' own contemporaries were long gone and many acts of the then-new day simply didn't seem to care.

My family donated when we could, and for some unknown reason I recall always playing with my Star Wars toys while watching. I would fall asleep with the telethon on, and always seemed to wake up to some sort of loud Stomp-esque dance number. As my family didn't stay home much on days that my dad had off, I often missed a lot of the Labor Day portion, but usually saw Jerry's final tally where he usually (but not always) made his yearly goal of "one dollar more." That last drum roll, always called for by longtime co-host Ed McMahon, was followed by Jerry's rendition of "You'll Never Walk Alone." That song, as well as "Smile," were telethon staples that will always be remembered as such.

A few times I actually got to see our local Pittsburgh portion live and in-person. Nationwide, the local channel broadcasting the telethon often hosted their own local portion with their own fundraising and appearances. WPXI would host the Pittsburgh broadcast from the fabled Monroeville Mall. Pittsburgh broadcasting renaissance man Bill "Chilly Billy" Cardille was the head of the local efforts. Cardille, one of the nicest people that you could ever meet, had a long career in Pittsburgh on radio and more notably on television as a weatherman, host of late-night movie series "Chiller Theater," and Studio Wrestling. Cardille's co-stars from those shows, including wrestling legend Bruno Sammartino, often came down to the mall to help man the telethon phone bank. This actually granted me my first in-person glimpse of the wrestling legend, not knowing that I would meet him many times years later.

Of course, what the event really boiled down to was helping the cause. "Jerry's Kids" were featured prominently throughout both the national and local portions. Some called it exploitative. Yes, even then we, sadly, had social justice warriors trying to make themselves feel good. My parents always made sure that I understood what these afflicted kids (and adults) were going through and why the cause was important. Luke Christie and the late Mattie Stepanek are two of the featured children who stay in my mind, both of whom served as National Goodwill Ambassadors.

Fortunately, many clips and segments of the classic telethons remain on YouTube. As a child, I always wondered what would happen to the telethon once Mr. Lewis passed on, but it turns out that he outlived it, and not for the reason that he was hoping for--finding a cure. Still, his efforts likely continue to benefit MDA even after their dismissal of him. Kids suffering from the terrible neuromuscular diseases have lived much longer and enjoyable lives than they would have, had those dollars not been raised. Again, those folks are the ones who it was really all about.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A "Royal" Portion of My Childhood...At Kings

I don't do the Chipotle's of the world. Not that there is anything wrong with those types of establishments, I was just raised differently. My parents liked to eat out. They didn't go to movies, bowl, or have card games. Going out to restaurants was their enjoyment, and when I came along it was something that they shared with me. They weren't big on fast food, but rather being served in a clean and pleasant atmosphere. Family restaurants were big then, and while Pittsburgh had its share of local, regional, and national chains, our standby was always Kings.

Kings has been back in the Pittsburgh news as of late, as founder Hartley King has finally found a buyer for the chain following a long search. A California firm is slated to take over the thirty-odd restaurants in the near future. The "Frownie Brownie" (a dessert designed to oppose rival chain Eat 'n Park's "Smiley Cookie") is said to be the first casualty following the takeover, with some menu changes and in-store remodeling to follow. Fortunately, my memories of Kings are from before the "Frownie" era of the restaurant chain.

When I was a toddler, my mother would walk us down to our local Kings Family Restaurant on nice afternoons. It wasn't very far from our townhouse, and at the time we were a one-car family. The staff all got to know me, and for the better part of fifteen years, I grew up in that building. As I aged, the waitresses would always comment that they recalled when I was being carried into the place. I was a well-behaved kid, though I do remember throwing a fit the evening that, shortly after recovering from some sort of childhood ailment, my mom would not let me order what I was craving. I also remember the night that the restaurant received a shipment of moldy hamburger buns. Screams and panic ensued as the management went to check on each table. The buns were slowly discovered and, aside from my own mother ingesting a portion of one, it became almost like a sitcom plot. I think that our meal was free that night. And for you wrestling fans, it was an early 1993 evening in that restaurant when my dad informed me that both Kerry Von Erich and Dino Bravo had recently passed away.

If anything, most Pittsburgers probably remember the old menus. Instead of a folding paper/plastic menu, all of your options were on the placemat in front of you. Kids received a separate placemat featuring all of the kiddie choices. Admittedly, I got to know the grown-up meals a lot earlier than most kids. I was a growing boy!

But if the food wasn't good, I wouldn't have many memories to begin with. Fried clams, a breakfast sandwich known as the "Eggel Bagel," chicken burgers, and of course their legendary soups were some of my favorites. Even my grandmother, a recluse by the time that I was born, once commented to me how good the soups were at Kings. How did she know?

By the mid-'90s, we had noticed that the quality of the chain had dipped. We weren't the only ones. Our favorite staff members started to depart, and my family began going to a local family-owned restaurant over the formerly dependable chain. Although my parents continued to go for breakfast, I could probably count on one hand how many times I went back from roughly 1998-2008.

Once again living very close to that location that I "grew up in," I still stop in for a bite. It's nothing fancy, but that's never what I've looked for in a restaurant. I was raised to appreciate good service and quality. In the past year or so, some menu additions for the chain have struck me as odd. "Artisan" sandwiches have been a main feature, with the famous aforementioned "Eggel Bagel" being wiped off the menu. It's my hope that the new ownership realizes what the clientele, families and senior citizens by-and-large, want what they are familiar with. Solid, traditional, homestyle foods. Comfort food. Not..."just exactly what is this?" food.

My family enjoyed other establishments such as Pappan's and Eat 'n Park, as well as national names like Denny's and Bob Evans, but we always came back to Kings. Apple pie and cinnamon ice cream? A Kings staple and an occasional treat for me, but I'd rather have another bowl of beef vegetable soup...

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

WrestleMania XXXI (Play Button) Predictions

I feel as if we should still be wondering just how WrestleMania XXX will turn out. That's how fast a year has gone by. Here we are, hot on the heels of WrestleMania Play Button. Maybe the subtitle should be "Ready To Press Play?"

For one who doesn't always want all of the hype, I actually don't feel that they are doing enough as far as WWE Network goes. The "WrestleMania Today" shows from last year were very entertaining and exactly the type of "up-to-the-minute" hype/coverage that WWE needs for their biggest event of the year. That show will return, but why limit it to that? You have a twenty-four hour streaming network which is now the centerpiece of the company. Re-running terrible and pointless top ten shows unrelated to WrestleMania is the last thing that I would do, but that's what's on tap and I'm not running the company. For all that many of us complain about WWE having too much product overexposure, this is the one weekend where it's never enough.

Nevertheless, we should be getting between ten and twelve hours of live content between WrestleMania, the Hall of Fame, and their respective pre-shows. As I've made clear, I'm very content with the WrestleMania build. The "go home" episode of Raw? I couldn't believe that a snoozefest like that was all that they could come up with, but I was very satisfied with the rest of "The Road to WrestleMania," especially since creative had to deal with so many part timers.

So, what will happen on Sunday night? I can't tell you (but if you call the hotline...), but I sure can tell you what I think will happen...and what I'd prefer to happen.

Lesnar vs Reigns

What I think should for Lesnar to get a definitive win. You don't need to have Lesnar steamroll Reigns, but definitely show that Reigns just isn't ready to defeat "The Beast." As I said in my last entry, I'm not on the Reigns hater bandwagon, but he probably wouldn't have been my choice, either. Actually, I would have gone with Cesaro. Even after his complete post-WrestleMania botching in 2014, you easily could have built him back up. Is there a fan alive who wouldn't have loved seeing Lesnar vs Cesaro? Regardless, I would keep Lesnar as champion and have him either drop it down the line to Bryan (if he proves that he can stay healthy) or Rollins. I do feel that if you go with the latter, you have to turn Rollins face. For some reason, I don't see him as a heel World Champion, but definitely as a face.

What will likely Reigns goes over. Rollins could cash in and subsequently make himself the biggest babyface of the year by default.

Sting vs Triple H

What I think should happen AND what will likely Sting winning. You don't have Sting lose his first match both in the company and at WrestleMania. I think that the match will be similar to the Triple H-Lesnar match at 29, where it took a few viewings for the match to really click. Sting also factors into what I think should happen with...

The Undertaker vs Wyatt

What I think should for Taker to lose. Wyatt is great and the rub that he would get here only adds to his mystique. Taker loses two Mania's in a row? No problem. He needs to redeem himself in Dallas. Taker vs Sting. That way the match finally happens, Sting already has his Mania win, and Taker can win one last big one. I'd also make it Taker's retirement match and put him into the Hall of Fame in Dallas. Smoke and mirrors didn't work last year for Taker because of who the opponent was. Brock's best work is the high impact stuff and it just didn't gel with the Taker of 2014. Taker and Sting, however, could make it work in 2016.

What will likely that The Undertaker tombstones Wyatt and the whole deal is forgotten by the next pay-per-view. Sad, but true.

Orton vs Rollins

What I think should for Rollins to win. Yes, he has the briefcase, but he could still use a singles Mania win over a top star. Orton is at the point where he can lose and it isn't going to hurt. He's cemented his legacy by now, and while I was much more a fan of his in his earlier days, he's an instant Hall of Famer at this point. Rollins is just great. When the face turn happens, no matter when, it will be huge.

What will likely a win for Orton. When Jon Stewart was said to be appearing in his corner, I definitely thought that this would be the case. Regardless, I still think that we'll see Orton get his over Rollins and the gang.

Rusev vs Cena

What I think should for Rusev to pin Cena. This is coming from a Cena fan. I just think that they've done too much with Rusev for it to end now. This could also lead into a Cena heel turn. I've never bought the "this is why they won't turn Cena" excuses. They can do it any time that they want. Failure to save the dignity of his country could be the perfect catalyst.

What will likely that Cena wins. I like the idea of Cena bringing back value to the United States Championship, but that whole concept will be dropped quickly if he does indeed take hold of the title.

The Ladder Match

What I think should happen... is for Ambrose to take it all. I personally feel that his in-ring work has diminished greatly in the past year or so, but it's time for his hunt to be over and to get his picture on the wall.

What will likely that the secret eighth participant brogue kicks Bryan off of the ladder and takes the championship. I like Sheamus as a heel, so I'm just as satisfied with this.

As for the Tag Team Championship match and Divas tag, I honestly just don't care. If the New Day don't turn heel and take the titles, I'd prefer them to stay on Cesaro and Kidd. The Divas match should be a singles match for the championship. This is WrestleMania, not Raw.

And there you have it. WrestleMania predictions from someone who has no more idea than anyone else. The last time that my predictions appeared in print (Pro Wrestling Illustrated, May 2012, for the record), I was dead wrong.

What? I forgot a match? That's right, I did. And one of the ones that I'm most looking forward to, to boot. I have always loved battle royals and always will. I never understood "hatred" for them, but I think it's another one of those "bitchin'" Internet wrestling "fan" group-think concepts that I don't follow. Regardless, there is only one choice to win the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal...

Friday, March 13, 2015

Just Another Crazy WrestleMania Season...


If I called this a "bitchin'" WrestleMania season, I wouldn't be far off track. Not "bitchin'" as in "it's been great" (although I don't think it's been bad at all), but because everyone has something to bitch about, or so it seems.

To clarify before we get any further, I have no problem with Roman Reigns. Would he have been my choice to book in the Mania main event? Probably not this year, but who else? Certainly not Daniel Bryan.

Suddenly, my face appears on the basement dartboards of Internet wrestling complainers...err..."fans" everywhere. No Daniel Bryan? How could that be?

I'll be the first to admit that I was one of thousands in the Consol Energy Center at Royal Rumble 2014 who was absolutely pissed that Bryan did not even show up in the Rumble match, but also that Batista won it. There was zero logic to it. Bryan had the most fan-backed momentum of any star in the company in at least a decade. As we all know, the booking shifted and "D-Bry" went on to have his huge "Yes Yes Yes" WrestleMania moment that everyone wanted.

That was last year.

Just a few months after, Bryan was injured, out of the picture, and seemingly with a finished career. That's no fault of Bryan, WWE, or his huge following, it's just the cards that he was dealt.

Fast forward to the end of 2014 and a miracle has occurred. Daniel Bryan has found a doctor with a method to treat and heal his career-threatening injuries. He will now be in the 2015 Royal Rumble, leading many fans to think that he will win it.

He does not.

I will not even get into how obnoxious the Internet wrestling "fans" have been following the events of the Royal Rumble. I've known some pathetic and babyfied wrestling devotees in my day, but I had no idea that there were so many. Death threats against Reigns, Vince McMahon, and others in the company? Please. You couldn't even follow through with your threats to cancel WWE Network.

Yes, I complained about the 2014 Rumble, but I got over it. There was also no logical reason that Bryan shouldn't have won that Rumble rather than be awkwardly shoehorned into the WrestleMania XXX main event. We had a right to get vocal. We received a winner who was never any great shakes in the ring to begin with and had a moderate following at best during his peak. I won't even mention that the guy was a "part-timer" who had just returned after an absence of several years.

This year, the "fans" turned on a Rumble winner who is on the cusp of becoming a new star. Isn't that something else that is always complained about? "No new stars are ever made, just the same old, same old." And I shouldn't have to mention that this same man was being salivated over by many of these same "fans" just a few months earlier. That salivation ended when "precious" Daniel Bryan didn't win.

As I stated above, I wouldn't have had him win either. To begin with, the "Daniel Bryan Underdog Story" already happened! Why would the company book a retread for their biggest show of the year? Would Lesnar-Bryan have been a good story? Possibly. Would they have had a good match? Maybe.

Ultimately, if this were 2012-2013 Lesnar, it would have been okay. With 2014 Lesnar and the way that he has been booked, I don't know that I could have gotten into it. Lesnar has been booked as an absolute monster in the past twelve months in a style that really has never been seen before in WWE rings. All the flying knees in the world wouldn't have me convinced that Bryan could unseat "The Beast."

The other, and more important, reason that I would not have booked Bryan is the uncertainty factor. If I'm McMahon, do I put all of my eggs into the basket of a guy who has proven to be a bit fragile? What if this "miracle procedure" fails and suddenly Bryan can't go a week before the show? The group-think followers don't want to hear that, but it's true. Anyone can get injured at any time, but why take the higher risk? Sure, WrestleMania was built on risks, but with corporate WWE that's no longer necessary.

Do I agree with every decision that WWE makes? Far from it. But the only thing that is baffling me this season is the ridiculous backlash. It's telling that Bryan followers are so blinded by the guy that they can't see the bigger picture, but it's reality. I want to see the guy have a long, on top, too, but WrestleMania 31 just isn't the place for it.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

This Is Your Social Hour.

Yes, the blond, large-headed child waving with the straw in his hand is me.  Despite that picture being twenty-five years old, I can still remember the exact moment, exactly what I was thinking, and yes, even what I was eating.

Beginning in kindergarten, if you purchased the school photos from that year you received a yearbook. At least I think that's how it worked. I don't think it was an add-on.  Perhaps everyone was given one regardless, as I doubt every parent purchased the photos.  After all, we weren't the richest school district. I loved looking at my parents old yearbooks as far back as I can remember, so naturally one that included me was extra cool.

Something that gnawed at me were those "candid" photos in the back of the book.  They were seemingly random photos affixed with captions that probably came out of a "Yearbook Photo Witty Captions" book. As much as I loved them, I wanted to BE in one of them.  The kindergarten yearbook wasn't a disappointment as I had no clue that they existed until then. The first grade yearbook was a different story. Young Josh KNEW that he should have made it into one of those photos. If I recall, one photo where I was just out of the frame made it that year.

That brings us to 1990.  Second grade photo day. I knew how adorable I looked in my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt and blond mop of hair. I knew that the bespectacled photographer was making the rounds. Only one thing could catch me off-guard and make me forget about my ever-growing quest to make the back pages: spaghetti day.

Most kids complain about school lunches. These days, those complaints are likely warranted. But from 1st thru 6th grade, I loved the elementary school lunches. The food was good, you could buy extra, and the spaghetti with meat sauce was out-of-this-world. It wasn't overly wet or dry, but had a nice thick consistency. With your meal you had to take some sort of milk, so the first portion went down nicely with that. Once you purchased extras, all bets were off. Two extra bowls and two Turner's orange drinks was the answer to my grade-school gluttony. But on that photo day, I was just sitting down to the lunch portion when my dream came true.

As I was unwrapping my straw to plunge into the carton of milk, I saw him out of the corner of my eye. The photographer. He's actually in the Holiday Park Elementary School cafeteria. He's probably going to snap a photo of the kitchen. Wait. He's turning towards our aisle. He's kneeling down. He's raising the camera! I'm getting in this!


And there it was. I'd made it. Although I'm sure that I repeated the tale that night at home, I forgot about it for a few months until the yearbook came out. When it did, I can remember my mom reporting that other parents that she knew loved my energetic cameo. I did, too.

I have no clue what school is like today. I just wonder if any kid would even care about such a thing anymore. I can look into that photo and remember the actions and even quirks of many of those kids. Have you ever seen a school cafeteria scene on "The Simpsons?" Those segments always remind me of those days. We had our own versions of Bart, Milhouse, Lisa, Nelson, Ralph, Sherri, and Terri. Who was I? I think I had a little bit of all of them in me. For this particular photo, though, I think I created my own character. His name?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

It's My Blog & I'll Cry If I Want To...

I have been doing some crying on the inside over the passing of Lesley Gore.  I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of the '60s songstress, but I've known of her most of my life thanks to a little tv show that she once appeared on.  That show was, of course, Batman.

Miss Gore appeared on the 1966 hit as Pussycat, a young protege of Julie Newmar's Catwoman.  She only appeared in one story (two episodes connected by a cliffhanger) and she was not one of the fabled "Special Guest Villains" (a reserved title that I'm sure I will discuss in a future entry), but she was given more to do than just a celebrity cameo.  Her star power at the time, as well as being niece to Batman producer Howie Horwitz, probably had a lot to do with this.

A large picture of Pussycat crooning "Maybe Now" to a photo of Robin, The Boy Wonder, was printed in "The Batbook," a thick bible of a book devoted to the tv series.  The Batbook was to Little Joshie as the blue blanket was to Linus Van Pelt.  I carried it everywhere, and Pussycat was one of a few Bat-females that I had a boyhood crush on.  Ironically, I wouldn't even see the "Maybe Now" scene until the Batman Blu-Ray release in late 2014.  First seeing the show in late-80s reruns, that scene was always cut.  Left in was her song from the first part of the story, "California Nights," with an equally '60s sound.

As I grew, '60s music was never among my top choices.  I never went through The Beatles phase that many people do.  But still, that distinct flavor of her songs kept me listening if one came on.  Some might dismiss her music as being a standard product of the time, but she was under the production umbrella of Quincy Jones early in her career.  That right there proves the existence of some musical chops.  Even as her major fame faded she seemed to keep going with her music, performing for audiences of varying sizes in the decades following her musical heyday

This celebrity death hit me.  Partially due to the fact that 68 is a relatively early death in this day and age. Another reason is that the late 1960s, when she was still at the top of her game, has always been a fascinating time to me.  So much, both good and bad, was going on in every aspect of life. Pictures and footage from that time always have a special, dream-like quality to them.  If I could go back in time to any era, I do believe that it would be then.  "The Wonder Years," as it were.  And though, as is often the case today, the tumultuous times probably often outweighed the good, maybe Lesley Gore would be singing "Sunshine, Lollipops, & Rainbows." Suddenly all would be right with the world.

Goodbye, Pussycat, Goodbye...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

NXT: The Self-Contained Alternative

It seems like NXT is a hot topic everywhere as of late. One year ago at this time, many like myself were all ready to jump into this new aspect of WWE programming.  While I'd familiarized myself with some of the talents there that I didn't know much about, I was surprised with just how well the presentation made the overall product stand out.

The periodic specials have been well done and do an excellent job as the "pay-per-view" events for the weekly tv to build towards.  A bit confusing to me is when main roster WWE stars are suddenly fighting their way towards NXT titles.  Logically, it should be a step down for them.  After all, NXT is still based in developmental.  That being said, I do agree with Triple H's recent statement that NXT can be a place for main roster talent to try out new persona's and freshen up a bit.

The most recent NXT TakeOver special may have been the best hyped one yet.  The matches were built the way that wrestling conflicts should be built: rivalries over championships and climbing the ladder towards those titles.  No shampoo commercials or dead girlfriends here.  I guess lollipops and comic books aren't permitted into the NXT booking meetings.

My own opinion is that it wasn't a bad show, but didn't quite match up to some of the previous offerings over the past year.  I realize the importance of all titles being on the line, but the tag team championship match could have been sacrificed in order to spend the time elsewhere.

I really enjoy Bull Dempsey and was sorry to see him lose to "cookie cutter" Corbin.  The latter has mid-card failure written all over him and does nothing to stand out.  Dempsey, while still in need of more seasoning, brings an entirely different look and feel to the table. This is the kind of different style of WWE superstar that I'm hoping the success of Bray Wyatt has opened the door for.

The only female that I wasn't looking to take the fatal four-way match did just that.  Sasha Banks and Carmella leave me wondering if I'm watching NXT or a doc on '70s Times Square streetwalkers.  On the other hand, Charlotte, Bayley, and Becky Lynch are all top talents.  I can't be the only one who has noticed the difference in Charlotte's hair and makeup the past few weeks.  Perhaps a new look for the main roster? Hopefully that badly booked Raw appearance from a few months ago is forgotten. Bayley should do amazing once she makes it up as well, succeeding where the similar AJ Lee failed. The true crime is that a certain pair of talentless twins will continue to dominate the main roster regardless.  Now there's something for the Internet folk to cry to their cats over.

The main event may have actually exceeded the hype, which was well done itself. I wondered just where exactly they would go with this match, and a great story was told right up to the end with plenty to build on for the future.  Everyone cared.  The story told to build it up wasn't complicated and even someone such as myself who didn't have a large emotional investment in one of the players still had to see the match.

With what little I knew of Kevin (Steen) Owens before he was signed made me doubt that I'd ever be a fan. After his debut, I could tell why the collective Internet had a crush on the guy:  he reminded them of themselves.  Not the entire Internet mind you, after all you and I are here.  But you know the type.  The Barney McCheetoh neckbeards in black t-shirts. This man was athletic and living their dreams for them.  At TakeOver I know that I wasn't the only one who noticed an improvement in his look.  Will the collective Internet wrestling hive turn on their hero for this?  Time will tell.

What does need to be addressed regarding Owens is that shirt.  He can be great in the ring, but a pale guy in a t-shirt against someone along the lines of Lesnar?  Come on.  But it can so easily be saved.  Give him a look similar to Vader.  The Mastodon never looked like Mr. Olympia, but he looked IMPOSING.  Pack that gingerbread up into a singlet, build those arms up a bit more and give him a manager.  Rumor has it that Heyman may be without a client later this year.  A visually repackaged Owens with Heyman as a mouthpiece?  I'm ready to get behind that already.

Corey Graves/Sterling James Keenan
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Corey Graves.  As he briefly mentioned on commentary last night, Graves, then known as Sterling James Keenan, came up on the Pittsburgh independent scene.  My crew and I always recognized that he had something special in the ring and the hunger to make it.  Although his in-ring career was cut short, it's great to see him excel in the NXT broadcast booth.  I've even began watching the Raw pre-shows again to catch his work there.  Another Pittsburgher bringing talent to the big time.

Triple H seems to have nothing but high hopes for NXT.  He has shockingly even used the term "alternative" to describe it.  The WWE mentality was always that nothing could possibly be better or more important than what was presented to you via Raw or Smackdown.  The times they are a changin'.  By how much?  We'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Trip to Abdullah's "House"...

Wrestling.  I knew that it would creep into this blog sooner or later.  Of course, it's been in the banner since day one.  I always thought that this would be a good place for wrestling tales that just didn't fit in with wrestling memorabilia (my other blog), since people are always asking that those stories be told.

The first "Josh Culture" wrestling tale takes us back to the summer of 2011.  My friend Brian and I were headed to (Badstreet) Atlanta, GA for the NWA Legends Fanfest.  Always looking for unique places to chow down, a certain fabled establishment found its place onto our itinerary early on: Abdullah the Butcher's House of Ribs & Chinese Food. For those of you wondering what an "Abdullah the Butcher" is, I'll provide a brief synopsis.  Abdullah is a notorious wrestling heel ("bad guy"), who, for over fifty years now, has terrorized wrestling fans around the world with his girth, scars, and trademark fork.

Despite the entertaining (and legendary) wrestling persona, the man behind the character has become notorious for being rather shady and difficult to work with.  My first experience with The Butcher was around six years earlier at a local wrestling show.  While Abdullah may have had one of his last good brawling "matches" (blood, weapons, and even an in-ring elbow drop) at that particular show, many fans were less than satisfied with the aging star's attitude toward fans and his annoying, portly "handler" who took the money and dished out nothing more than southern-fried lip.

By 2011 I'd had several experiences with Abdullah, mostly good, so I was ready to taste his cuisine. Brian and I arrived to the Peach State early, so we killed a few hours before having lunch at the famed establishment. As the name suggests, Abdullah's serves both barbecue and Chinese food.  Despite being a fervent lover of the latter, I rarely order Chinese food outside of my own local favorite haunt, so I opted for barbecue.  My container included ribs, chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and cornbread.  A good, no-nonsense, soul food meal.

The building itself was older and filled with autographed wrestling photos, clippings, and other memorabilia.  Abdullah himself was not there at the time, which was no big deal considering that we had met him several times previously. Despite the establishment supposedly being in a "bad part of town," we decided to try and return for dinner one night over the weekend.

Showing his difficulty and defiance, Abdullah showed up in the lobby of the Fanfest host hotel selling autographs and photos.  The legend likely would've been an invited part of the event had he not upset the promoters with his actions at Fanfest several years earlier.  Though I did not see it with my own eyes, reports say that Terry Funk himself had to escort The Butcher off of the premises.

We did end up making time to return to the restaurant that Saturday night, and this time Abdullah was playing host to fellow legend Ivan Koloff.  Although we sat and ate our meals without bothering anyone, the aforementioned portly and annoying handler kept letting us know that Abdullah would "take care" of us when he was finished with Ivan.  Used to being treated as a guest in restaurants, I figured that a photo wouldn't be out of the question.  I have a photo with The Butcher "forking" me, but one with the owner inside his restaurant might have been fun.

But not "make Abdullah extra money" fun.

When it came time for Abdullah to "take care of us," it became fast apparent that the care would cost. When I simply said that I had no cash and turned to walk away, the annoying and portly handler cheerily yelled out that they accepted credit cards.  After it sunk into the obese brawler's scarred head that he would be getting zero additional dollars from us, we were dismissed with a "Good evening, gentlemen."  I have no problem paying for an autograph or photo at a convention.  They aren't doing those shows out of the goodness of their heart.  But at your restaurant that I've just patronized twice?  Please.

Larry Shreeve, the individual who portrays Abdullah, will die a bitter, penny-pinching man.  But just like actors or musicians who hold different views and beliefs than I do, I can appreciate the body of work just the same.  Abdullah the Butcher?  Amusing and terrifying to no end in over fifty years of wrestling.  Larry Shreeve?  Delusional lump of suet.

I've heard stories since of Abdullah happily posing for free photos in his restaurant since, but it doesn't bother me.  I just think back to a few years before the restaurant incident, and a little girl, roughly seven years old. Abdullah was sitting at his gimmick (photo/merchandise) table at a wrestling show where each legend was supposed to give one autograph for free.  Fearlessly, she took her poster up to Abdullah who refused to sign it unless she gave him five dollars.  In one twist of her tiny frame, she angrily whisked the poster away...sending Abdullah's sale items crashing to the floor.

I guess ol' Abby finally met his match.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Leaving up the Lights: Old World or White Trash?

By this time of the new year, most everybody who had Christmas lights up has finally taken them down. Maybe. For the first week of the year, leaving them up feels like an easy way to extend the festive feelings of the holiday season.  The ham, peppermint sticks, presents, and egg nog may be gone, but the feelings remain.  By the second week, leaving them up feels like an awesome way of putting off the inevitable--dragging out the boxes and sending the decorations back to wherever they reside for the majority of the year.

As a child, I don't recall a January without Christmas lights and/or decorations.  My mom would say that we were leaving them up for "Russian Christmas."  We did have that ancestry, and although we didn't celebrate as we did on December 25th, I did get an idea of what the Orthodox Christmas meant.  There's a segment in Rick Sebak's documentary "Happy Holidays in Pittsburgh" (a great special for anyone in or out of The Burgh) where a woman with a large menagerie of Christmas lights utters the same "Russian Christmas" statement.  Apparently we weren't the only ones who went that route!

It wasn't until I grew older that I learned of the unfortunate "white trash" stigma of leaving lights up.  Sure, we can all picture the slightly run-down house with Billy Bob outside in his torn jeans and dirty shirt, waiting to come indoors when the electric icicles light up.  Nevertheless, I think that in recent years, movies and other media with a negative connotation have blown this into a way bigger concept than it actually is.  After all, so-called "ugly" Christmas sweaters weren't labeled as such while I was growing up, either, but that's a rant best saved for next Christmas.  Stereotypes may be based in truth, but I think that this is one that is really undeserved.

Now that we"re almost a full month into the new year, even a Christmas fanatic such as myself can safely admit that it's time for the lighted reindeer and inflatable Frosty to come down.  If they were up all year, what fun would it be to unveil them again next Thanksgiving weekend?  As for the trees and indoor knickknacks? You have a little while yet.  They can't judge what they can't see!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

It's not Pop's Josh Culture


Some of you may have found your way here via my other blog, Twitter, or just by chance. You may have enjoyed my writing dating back to social media relics like LiveJournal and MySpace.  It was on those sites that I truly enjoyed writing off the top of my head on just about any topic that I wanted.  Although I love my other blog (no, it isn't ending) and the many great opportunities that have arisen from it, I missed just plain writing.  Wrestling memorabilia, as fun as it is, is a very niche topic.

A few years ago, I attempted a second blog.  I went into it with a rant from the get-go, and it just wasn't fun. Even after that failure, I knew that wouldn't be my general blogging end. What I wanted was something with the same multi-platform aspect of "JW's Wrestling Memorabilia," but without the structure and parameters that I've set for myself there.

For that blog, I have set times, set stories, and a regular stream of pictures.  I fiddle with it until I get it right, and I don't like to stray too far off of my regular path.  Josh Culture is essentially me letting my hair down.

As much heat as it takes, Twitter is a tremendous extension for a blog.  Free advertising at it's best.  This blog and my corresponding Twitter account make up Josh Culture.  It's pop culture, life, and the stories that intertwine it all.  It's the things that interest me and, in turn, will most likely interest you.  Even if the topic doesn't necessarily thrill you, I've been told that my writing sucks people in.  I don't know that I necessarily want the word "sucks" anywhere near a description of my writing.  "Folksy," on the other hand, is a description that would please me immensely.

Thanks for joining the ride.  It might be a bit bumpy, but we'll stop for some good food along the way, and you'll come home with a new memory or two.  Guaranteed.